Archives For Preaching Atonement


When it comes to understanding the atonement, how Jesus saves us and makes us ‘at-one’ with God the Father, it all comes down to the conjunctions.

For example:

Does Jesus die for us?
As in, does Jesus die in our place? As a substitute for you and me?

Or does Jesus die because of us?
As in, is death on a cross the inevitable conclusion to the way he lived his life? Does Jesus die because our sinful lust for power, wealth and violence kills him? As though our world has no other reaction to a life God desires than to eliminate it?

Does Jesus die in order to destroy Death and Sin?
As in, does Jesus let the powers of Sin and Death do their worst so that, in triumphing over them, he shatters their power forever?

Does Jesus die with us?

As in, does Jesus suffer death as the completion of his incarnation? Is death the last experience left for God to be one of us, in the flesh?

Was it necessary for Jesus to die?

Or was his incarnation, his taking our nature and living it perfectly, redemptive in itself?

Did Jesus have to die on a cross?
If the conclusion to incarnation had been for Jesus to die as an old man of natural causes, would we still be saved?

How does the history of and covenant with Israel fit into the salvation worked by Christ?

And how does Easter relate to Good Friday?

The Christian tradition and scripture itself offers many more vantage points on the mystery of the cross than the standard, unexamined ‘Jesus died for you’ platitudes you hear so often in the pulpits.

Check out the ebook for Lent, Preaching a Better Atonement. In it, I take a look at some of the Church’s historic understandings of the atonement and offer a few examples of what it looks like to preach that particular angle on the Good News. All any proceeds will go towards the Guatemala Toilet Project.



We kicked off weekly worship our satellite campus this Sunday with the first in a sermon of series: The 7 Deadlies and the 7 Ways that Jesus Saves Us. As you’ll see, the new venue allowed me to use slides and video for the first time.

During the series I’ll be pairing one of the ancient capital vices (aka: Deadly Sins) with one of the Church’s ancient or modern understandings of atonement- how Jesus makes us at-one with God. In this sermon, I owe a debt to Jonathan Martin’s work in Prototype and, like him, owe a debt to St Iraeneus and the late Herbert McCabe.

You can listen to it here below, in the sidebar ‘Listen’ Widget to the right or in iTunes under ‘Tamed Cynic.’

      1. Believing in Jesus, Believing like Jesus - Jason Micheli



christ-in-the-wilderness-briton-riviereMatthew 4.1-11 & Ephesian 1.9-10

Who are you?

Not only is that a question some of you might be wondering about me, especially after seeing me on toilet, I’m convinced it’s the most important question of all.

Who are you?

I believe it’s the question at the heart of what we call the Gospel- the good news.

And it’s the reason I believe people need the church- need a church.

Because we certainly don’t have all the answers but we have heard one answer.

We’ve heard the answer to that ‘who are you?’ question.

Since it’s so important, it makes sense to tell you.

Who I am.

Without going into genealogies or boring you with begats, the best answer to who I am starts here with this boy. 942763_238129929671334_1061230345_n

He’s 4 or 5 here.

And twice a day, morning and evening, breakfast and dinner, on the back deck, a brown squirrel would wait outside the screen door, sitting on its hind legs, and beg for food.

Twice a day the squirrel would eat out of the little boy’s hand.

The boy called the squirrel ‘Foxy.’

He was only 4 or 5, but even then he knew that squirrels don’t eat out of people’s hands.

But Foxy did. This boy- he lived in an enchanted world.

He felt happy and special and free and infinitely loved. He’d never heard the word ‘God’ before, but even so he felt surrounded by God’s loving presence.

This boy- he felt no fear, no doubt. He felt no shame, no reason to hide behind any masks, no self-consciousness at all.

You don’t wear shorts that short if you’re burdened with self-consciousness or shame.

If you asked this boy that question ‘Who are you?’ then I probably would’ve told you: ‘I’m the boy with the magic squirrel.’

1233470_238129893004671_1944569950_nBut that boy grew up to be this boy.

And it’s true that this boy isn’t happy to wearing a cutesy, home-made costume that only other moms will think is cool. It’s true this boy isn’t happy he’s not wearing one of those cheap, plastic superhero masks, the kind with the one staple and the rubber band that snaps as soon as you try to put it on your head.

It’s true this boy isn’t happy to be dressed like a clown, but, truthfully, this isn’t the first time this boy learned how to smear a fake smile on his face.

A few months before this Halloween was the first time the boy laid awake in his bunk bed and listened to the screaming and hitting downstairs.

Other nights he’d cry quietly, sitting at the top of the stairs and listening to his parents below when they thought he was asleep in bed.

Right before this Halloween was when his Dad hit the tree in their front yard after another night out drinking too much. He knew because he heard his Mom say so when he was supposed to be asleep.

But when the boy asked his Dad what happened to the car, his Dad lied to him. And when the boy asked his Mom what happened to the car…     So if you asked this boy that question: ‘Who are you?’ he might’ve said ‘Who do you think? Obviously, I’m a clown.’

But the truth is, the boy didn’t know.

Halloween was just one day of the year that he wore a mask.

When that boy became a teenager, he wished he could wear an actual mask.

This is one of the only pictures of him. 1174693_238129899671337_673103939_n

When that boy became a teenager, he didn’t let that many pictures of him get taken. His complexion eventually got so bad that after exhausting a battery of treatments the doctors prescribed him the same medication used to treat leprosy.

To add another layer of biblical allusion, the leprosy once got so bad that the kids at his bus stop would throw stones at him.

He responded by retreating into sarcasm and when that didn’t work he just retaliated. Desperation, it turns out, makes for a good fighter.

Not having any answer to that ‘Who are you?’ question made it impossible for him to forgive or turn the other cheek or think about walking an inch in his bullies’ shoes or even trust someone else enough to tell them what was going on with him.

His family was broken up and his body was broken out, and if you asked him that ‘Who are you?’ question there’s no way he would’ve answered honestly.

He just would’ve hid, but the truth was he felt unloved and unlovely.

One day the boy next door invited him to church, a house church.

He’d never heard of such a thing but as invitations to anything were a rarity he went.

Already feeling unloved and unlovely, the friendly souls at this house church told the boy there was something else wrong with him.

They told him he was a sinner.

That’s the answer they gave him to the ‘Who are you? question.

To make matters worse, they gave a teenager homework.

They told him there was something he had to do.

Believe in Jesus.

So that.

God would forgive him and love him.

So that.

He could go to heaven one day.

But this boy really didn’t think he needed forgiving, and he wasn’t interested in how to go to heaven so much as how his life could stop being a living hell.

Who are you? It is, I believe, the most important of questions.

So having the right answer makes all the difference.


The most important part of Matthew’s Gospel story today is what comes before it.

Jesus shows up at the Jordan river to be baptized.

And as he comes up out of the water, Matthew says the sky opens up and the Holy Spirit comes down and God’s voice declares like it was the first week of creation: ‘This is my Beloved in whom I delight.’

But no one falls down instantly and worships Jesus or signs up to be a disciple.

So no one else hears God say ‘This is my Beloved.’

Only Jesus hears it, like a voice in his head.

It’s not like proof or evidence.

It’s more like something Jesus has to trust and believe: who God has said he is.

When the Israelites were slaves in Egypt, God declared to them: ‘I will be your God and you will be my Beloved.’

But not long after God rescues them from bondage, when they’re still damp from crossing through the Red Sea, the Israelites forget. They forget who God said they were.

As soon as they’re in the wilderness, they start to worry and complain that they’re going to starve or die of thirst or be left all alone.

And God responds by giving them bread and water, but God tells them you can’t live by bread alone. You have to know who you are. Don’t put your God to the test because that just shows you’ve forgotten who you are. And don’t flirt with any other little ‘g’ gods. Remember, I am yours and you are my Beloved.

But soon after they forget again.

Immediately after he’s baptized and hears God declare ‘You are my Beloved’ the Holy Spirit thrusts Jesus into the wilderness. And in the wilderness, after 40 days of fasting, when Jesus is weak and lonely and at his lowliest, Jesus hears another voice:

‘If you’re really God’s Beloved…

Turn those stones to bread.

Take a leap and let everyone see.

Bow down and I’ll give you power the world will recognize.’

Each step of the way Jesus’ experience in the wilderness echoes Israel’s own. And where Israel forgot who they were, Jesus remembers. And believes it.

Not only that, Jesus’ experience in the wilderness echoes Adam and Eve’s experience in the Garden.

The questions the devil puts to Jesus aren’t really any different than the very first question the devil ever asked: ‘Did God really say…? That you’re very good…that you’re Beloved?’

Isn’t it interesting how scripture never personifies the devil with horns and a pitchfork but as that voice in your head, that voice around you, tempting you to forget what God has said about you, to forget who you are?

I never went back to my neighbor’s house church.

I never went to any church for a half-dozen years. It was pre-smartphone, so I don’t a lot of pictures, but if there’s 1 image from those years, 1 image that best captures who I was becoming, it’s this one. 225px-Magritte_TheSonOfMan

Empty inside. No joy. Nothing to me besides what I presented on the outside.

And because of who she was afraid I was becoming, my mom one day announced we were going to church, which in our family was about as casual an announcement as ‘I have a tapeworm.’

The church she took us to was a new church. It didn’t even look like a church. It looked like an auditorium, and it was Christmas Eve. I now know that’s a night when many folks try out a church for the first time, but I didn’t know that then. I thought I was the only one there who didn’t belong. So I sat through the service feeling cynical and scornful and fake.

And I kept at it like that, kept up that attitude, Sunday after successive Sunday. My mom kept at it too, kept making us go.

One day, I don’t know how many Sundays after that first day, we read this story. The story before today’s story. The story where Jesus hears God say ‘You are my Beloved, in you I delight.’

3260 And this guy talked about the story. And this guy can barely remember what he had for breakfast so there’s no way he remembers what he said.

But I do. Because it changed my life.

He said:

If Jesus took on our humanity, if each one of us is represented in Jesus, then that means that what God says to Jesus, God says to each one of you.

You are beloved. In you God delights.

He told me who I am.

Jesus’ baptism is not the first time in scripture that God says to someone: ‘You are my Beloved.’

It’s not the first time in scripture that God says that to someone, but it is the first time in scripture that someone actually believes it and lives his life believing it and never forgets it even when he’s suffering and that other voice from the wilderness creeps back for another go at him.

The theologian Hebert McCabe says that what sets Jesus apart is not the miracles he performed. It’s not his teaching or preaching. Or, even, that he died on a Cross.

No, what sets Jesus apart:

is his deep and abiding belief that he was loved by God.


Jesus was like us in every way. Tempted like us. Flesh and blood like us. Born and died like us. In every way he was like every one of us who’s ever been since Adam.

Except one way.

Jesus never forgot who he was. He never doubted that he was Beloved.

And knowing, all the way down, that he was loved, set him free to live as though the whole world was a new and different creation.

That’s why Jesus’ baptism comes at the beginning of the Gospels. It’s what kick-offs his ministry. We make a big deal of Christmas, but it’s those words ‘You are my Beloved’ that’s when Jesus ‘becomes’ Jesus.

‘You are my Beloved, in you I delight.’

It’s just a few words, but the Gospels put those few words right before the beginning of Jesus’ ministry so that you can see that all it takes is to believe those few words.

That if you just believe those few words

That if you trust that who you are is loved

Then that can change literally everything.



Scripture says that pride- forgetting who God has said you are and trying to manufacture a different you- is the ‘head of all sin.’

But scripture also says Jesus ‘re-heads’ the human story.

That’s what Paul says in Ephesians 1: that God has ‘recapitulated’ all things in Jesus, things in heaven and things on earth.

The word Paul uses there, recapitulation, means literally ‘re-head.’

Jesus renarrates the human story. He renews our humanity.

He redefines what it means to be human.

The first Christians believed that’s one of the ways Jesus saves us.

Their way of putting it was that in Jesus, God became what we are- prideful sinners, people who don’t know who we are- so that we might become what Jesus is:

someone who knows he is beloved

and trusts it enough to live into it

and live it out in a way that changes the world.

In other words,

If that’s true,

Then Jesus isn’t just a prophet.

He isn’t just a preacher.

And he sure isn’t just a person who’s punished for your sin.

He’s the prototype for your life.

That’s what scripture means when it calls Jesus the 2nd Adam.

It’s what scripture means when it calls Jesus the eikon- the visible picture- of the invisible God. Good_Shepherd

He’s the prototype of a new humanity.

And you don’t bother to make a prototype if you don’t desire that one day there will be others just like it

There are some who will tell you that Christianity is about just being forgiven for your sin. But if Jesus is the prototype, then Christianity is about learning to become as fully human as Jesus.

There are some who will tell you that Christianity is all about believing in Jesus. Or believing certain things about Jesus.

But if Jesus is God’s prototype for a new way of being human then believing in Jesus has got to begin and end with believing like Jesus.

Believing like Jesus believed.

Believing that you can face trials without fear.

Believing that you can show mercy rather than cast stones.

Believing that you can love your enemies and bless those who curse us and forgive 70 x 7.

Believing that you can be a person of compassion and hope.

Believing that you- you– can bring news to the poor.

You can lift up the lowly.

You can show the world snapshots of what God’s Kingdom looks like.

If you only believe.

If Jesus is God’s prototype, then believing in Jesus has everything to do with believing like Jesus.

And believing like Jesus- for you that begins just like it began for Jesus: with knowing who you are.

You are God’s Beloved. In you God delights.

And that’s who I am.

I don’t have a magic squirrel anymore, but I do have these. photo-1

You don’t wear shorts this short unless you’ve been set free.

From shame and self-consciousness.

You don’t wear shorts this short unless you’re completely confident that you’re delight to the Source of all Delight. Unless you’re sure, all the way down, that you’re beloved.






IMG_0593I’ve posted a few times this week about the Church’s historic theories about how Jesus saves us on the cross. Atonement theories. None of these theories are perfect. Some are problematic.

The chief problem with all of them is how incidental they make Jesus’ Jewishness.

Jesus is the incarnation of Yahweh not a generic concept of God. That should matter and govern how we understand his life, death and resurrection.

After all, the New Testament is replete with parallels between the Hebrew Bible and Jesus’ life:

The Genesis Creation Story – Matthew’s Genealogy of Jesus and Jesus’ Virgin Birth 

Joseph Going Egypt – Holy Family’s Flight to Egypt

Death of the Firstborn in Exodus – Herod Killing Newborns in Matthew

Deliverance through Red Sea – Jesus’ baptism in Jordan

Wilderness Wandering – Jesus’ Temptation in Wilderness

Moses Giving the Law – Sermon on the Mount

Manna – Feeding of the Multitude 

Passover – Last Supper 

Garden of Eden – Garden of Gethsemane 

Tree of Knowledge – Cross

NT Wright says that “Jesus is Israel in person.” Jesus doesn’t just re-enact, in a general way, our human story. Jesus re-enacts the particular story of Israel.

Jesus goes down to Egypt with Joseph like Israel did. He begins his vocation at the Jordan River like Israel did. He’s tested in the wilderness for forty days just as Israel was tested for forty years. Jesus calls twelve followers like Israel had twelve tribes. Jesus echoes the prophets by calling attention to those who’ve been forgotten and marginalized.

Jesus is the Second Adam. He’s the one righteous man like Noah. He forms a new people like Abraham. He’s the new Israel like Jacob. He despairs and nevertheless saves his people like Joseph. He leads his people to freedom like Moses. He’s God’s chosen King like David. Like David facing Goliath, he does for his people what they cannot do for themselves. He’s a healer and trouble-maker like Elijah.

     And by following the way of the Cross, Jesus goes into Exile among his own people to bring them home and change the ending of their story. The rejection Jesus faces puts God to the ultimate test, but on Easter God turns that rejection into a display of his grace.

Jesus is the entire story of Israel in the flesh. Redone. Recapitulated. Repeated. Perfectly this time.

By living perfectly the life God originally intended for all of us, by doing what Israel could never do, Jesus unwinds the story of Sin. He shows Sin to be a false narrative, a corruption, devoid of power or ultimacy. He starts creation again. Resurrection is a reset. In him, is a new creation.

So salvation doesn’t just begin with Christmas or on the Cross. It begins when God calls Abraham to be a blessing to the world. And it’s embodied by the whole life of Jesus. It’s living this whole story that saves us and continues to heal the world.

In other words, there is something fundamentally askew with human existence- we’re imperfect, corruptible and prone to sin despite our best intentions.

So, in Christ, God takes flesh to set right what is wrong with our fleshly lives. Just as Adam disobeyed God by eating from a tree, Christ obeys God even if it leads him to be nailed to a tree. Christ thus perfects every part of our human lives.

We’re saved because, by becoming one of us, God joins our imperfect character to his perfect character. God became one of us so that we might be freed to become more like God.

In this perspective, the Cross is an image of Christ’s obedience (not God’s wrath). Christ doesn’t suffer for us, in our place. He suffers because of us. In other words, sinful humanity’s reaction to the life of someone who bears God’s image is to see him as a criminal and kill him. Think of Martin Luther King.

He didn’t come to die, but its easy to see how death was the likely outcome of a life lived as he lived it.

God’s wrath didn’t require his death; his vocation did. 

The cross is a sign of Christ’s obedient life. Even when threatened with suffering and death, he doesn’t waver from the form of life God desires. Easter then is vindication. It’s God saying with an empty tomb: ‘this is the life I desire.’

The cross is a sign of obedience and Easter is vindication, but salvation begins happening with incarnation, in Mary’s womb.

Christus Victor, Penal Substitution, Moral Exemplar- these traditional atonement theories all have scriptural support. They’re all right, in a sense.

The problem, though, is that each of them focuses on only one part of the story: Good Friday or Easter or Christmas Day; Jesus’ suffering or the Sermon on the Mount or the Resurrection. None of them focuses on the whole of the story. They all see Jesus fulfilling a part of the Hebrew Bible but they fail to put Jesus in continuity with the entirety of the Hebrew Bible. 

     They really are theories in that they’re abstracted explanations.

     They’re abstracted from the detail and the context of Jesus’ life.

They all forget that the context of Jesus’ life isn’t a courtroom or a battlefield or our hearts. Sin isn’t just a matter of guilt. Sin isn’t just a matter of metaphysical corruption. Sin isn’t just ignorance.

Sin is a corruption of Israel’s destiny.

     And the context of Jesus’ life is Israel.

Because Jesus effects a re-inaugeration of the creation story, we are now free (through the Spirit’s work) to live Jesus’ life. Jesus’ earthly teaching is not extraneous nor is it simply something that can change our hearts. It’s the true story of creation. It’s, as John Howard Yoder says, ‘the grain of the universe.’

The recapitulation perspective sees Jesus’ work not only as living Israel’s life perfectly so that Sin can be defeated. It sees Jesus’ birth, life, death and resurrection as the first act of God’s New Creation.

In the Book of Revelation, for example, ‘heaven’ is not a ‘pie-in-the-sky’ otherworldly realm. Rather, heaven is a New Earth. Heaven comes down to earth. Our destiny is a New Jerusalem in which God dwells in peace and love with his creatures- just as things had begun in the Garden in Genesis.

The Gospels, however, emphasizes the importance of Jesus’ life because it’s that life that leads to New Creation.

The proper trajectory of salvation, then, is not that we go to be with God, but that, because of the reversal made possible by Christ, God will come down and be with us forever.





IMG_0593This weekend is Palm-Passion Sunday and, with it, the beginning of Holy Week. We’re following Jesus to the Cross.

The following is an anecdote I used to begin a sermon on the atonement a few years ago:

It probably tells you something about my life that I’ve known two different people named ‘Frog.’ The first was a bully in middle school who sat in front of me on the bus. That was the Frog on whom I one day unleashed my inner Taxi Driver, but that’s a story for another place.  

     The other Frog was a retired man who worked for the funeral home in the town where I once ministered. This Frog- I have no idea what his actual name was; it actually said ‘Frog’ on the somber nametag he wore for the funeral home- was tall and skinny and bald. His head was small and his Adam’s apple was large and stuck out further than his nose. 

     Once, I was sitting in the hearse with Frog. I had my robe on and my worship book in my lap. We’d left a funeral service at my church and we were leading a processional of cars to the cemetery for the burial. I’d ridden with Frog before. Frog was a lay leader at his church- a deacon I think is what they call them. His church was Pentecostal Holiness, one of approximately fifty-three in town. 

     As we led the procession through town and up the winding road to the graveyard, Frog told me that he and his church had that previous weekend baptized sixteen youth in the Jordan River. 

     ‘Excuse me?’ I said. ‘In the Jordan River?’ I asked.  

     And he said: ‘Yeah, the Jordan River…at Holy Land, USA.’ 

     Holy Land, USA was a- I don’t know what you call it- theme park a short drive away in Bedford, Virginia. The Jordan River in question was actually more of a stream that eventually found its way to the James River. I had driven past Holy Land, USA before. 

     It is a not- quite- to- scale recreation of the Holy Land complete with State Park-like wooden signs explaining in irregularly painted words what you’re looking at. The Garden of Gethsemane, for example.  

     It all has a certain charm to it, and I suppose if you can ignore the thickly forested mountains, the waste baskets and park benches, then it’s just like the Holy Land. It’s on the same tourist route as Foam-Henge, the Natural Bridge Wax Museum and the miniature toy museum. 

     This is the hallowed, sacred site where Frog had proudly helped baptize sixteen of his church’s youth. 

     ‘That’s…interesting’ I said. When he didn’t say anything in reply, I was afraid I had offended him. But we had arrived at the cemetery and he was instead looking in his mirrors to check that the procession was lining up behind him properly. 

     ‘It’s a waste of land’ he said to me absently. And I thought he was talking about the graveyard. 

‘At Holy Land, USA they have I don’t know how many acres. You can walk Jesus’ whole life.

But if Jesus just came to suffer for our sins, it’s an awful waste of land.’ 

     Then he got out of the hearse. 

     By that same reasoning you could argue that the Gospel texts themselves are a waste of ink and pages. Filler. Unnecessary prologue on the way to the Passion and to Paul.

Frog is hardly the only person to harbor that perspective.

     When the purpose of Jesus’ life is defined exclusively in terms of his death, then the content of his life seems superfluous. Indeed (and this may be one reason why the substitutionary perspective has such mass appeal) the ethical imperatives preached by Jesus in his life no longer carry much urgency.

     You only need the cross for salvation. 

     Not the sermon on the mount. 

     Jesus came to die for me. 

     Not to form me as part of a particular community.

     What’s demanded by this understanding of the atonement is my belief in it and not my           participation in or continuation of Jesus’ Kingdom community.

What’s more, if Jesus’ death is the point of it all then Easter seems little more than a happy surprise at the end of the story, a pleasant but not necessary epilogue, an example only of the eternal life we too will one day enjoy.

But here’s the real kicker:

Why is it that no one seems to notice that the most common ways we have of talking about the Cross and what Jesus accomplishes (and why) appear no where on the actual lips of Jesus?

How do we get away with narrating the Cross in a manner that the Gospel writers chose not to narrate it?